A look at the standings in the National Basketball Association last week revealed that none of the teams was missing—but there was still something wrong, or so it seemed. The first-place listing in the Eastern Division, not a typographical error, read: Cincinnati. The Royals were not there by much—half a game—but don't knock it. In addition, the Philadelphia 76ers, physically the strongest team in the league, were just a dunk shot behind the Royals. Suddenly—and surprisingly—the race in the East had changed from a stroll to a scramble.
How did this happen? A good question. For a decade the Celtics had consistently and emphatically settled the issue by February 1, and those brave statements made by Boston's rivals insisting that the race was not yet over fooled nobody. So what in the world were the Royals doing up there?
Improbable as it sounds, it turns out to be perfectly reasonable. The Celtics are hurt physically: John Havlicek, Tom Sanders and Willie Naulls are having a miserable time with various portions of their legs, and gone are the likes of Cousy, Ramsey and Heinsohn.
But it would be wrong to ascribe Boston's situation to galloping old age. More important are the attributes the Royals are displaying: they have become tough, quick, confident—and they have flair. Their assets, in fact, sound suspiciously like those that champions are made of. There is Oscar Robertson, who continues to do more things better than anybody almost all of the time. Jerry Lucas is playing every game as if it were the final of the playoffs, and has become the most effective rebounding forward ever to play in the NBA. And if the opposition is inclined to gang up on Robertson, Adrian Smith—known fondly as Odie—stops that nonsense immediately with accurate shots from long range. Wayne Embry has sacrificed his position on the All-Star team and about six points from his scoring average by moving out to a high post to set screens for the good Cincinnati shooters. "Screen" may not be quite the word for the 6-foot-8, 260-pound Embry: the Great Wall of China, perhaps. Tom Hawkins is slightly smallish (6 feet 5) for a man whose principal duty is to get rebounds, but he manages very well because of his ability to jump. There is also a sixth man this year, a luxury the Royals have seldom enjoyed, in Happy Hairston. Happy laughs almost all the time, which is fine for morale, but he also comes into games with great zest and an ability to score points in a hurry.
The changes in the Royals are subtle ones, with the same good players doing what they have always done well. The difference is in team execution. Instead of racing up and down the floor with individual style—a sort of last-man-to-the-basket-is-a-rotten-egg abandon—the players now complement each other.
Such a pleasant blending of talent might have come eventually at any rate, but it has come to Cincinnati in 1966 because Jack McMahon has been working on it for three years. He learned the system as a player for the St. Louis Hawks, perfected it early as a coach and is utilizing it now with the calm daring of a first-rate tactician. It really has not been very long since McMahon was the whippetlike playmaker for the Hawks, but it would be the grossest form of flattery to suggest that he resembles that man now. McMahon is plainly pudgy and has lost a step or two of his speed—or maybe half a basketball court—but in his attitude toward winning nothing has changed. It is complete, consuming and at times agonizing to watch.
San Francisco Warrior Coach Alex Hannum, who was McMahon's coach in St. Louis, recalls a bus ride after what should have been the last game of the 1957 season. The Hawks lost it, however, and that meant a sudden-death playoff with the Fort Wayne Pistons for the championship. "We were cursing our luck in the bus and moaning over what might have been if we hadn't blown that last game," says Hannum. It was 3 a.m. when McMahon startled the others by standing up and saying: "To hell with that. We lost. We're going to think about the game tomorrow. Fort Wayne, those blankety-blanks, is a team that can't even get on the floor with us. You guys hear that? They can't even get on the floor with us." In the playoff McMahon scored 28 points, had 14 assists, held Gene Shue—who was Fort Wayne's best scorer—in check all night, and St. Louis won easily.
McMahon still behaves that way. When the Royals win, as they did last week against the Celtics to go into first place, he is the perfect picture of a man about to have a nervous breakdown. He fidgets and wrings his hands, and his face turns various hues of red. When the Royals lose the agony lingers on. Driving home with his wife Kay, a strikingly attractive blonde with a pixie cut, McMahon's first words are: "I don't want to talk about it." Silence. "If that jerk referee had called—I don't want to talk about it." Silence. "Did you see them hit Lucas on that tip? I don't want to talk about it." And so on until most of the game has been rejected and covered.
The Royals' start this season was hardly auspicious. Robertson had been a holdout all through training, and McMahon worried about a chest injury to Lucas that had forced him to miss nearly a quarter of last season. When Cincinnati lost three of its first four games, opposing coaches raced off to see when their turn would come to play the Royals. The NBA, however, has frequently turned out some of the strangest schedules ever devised for professional teams, and this year's was one of the wackiest. It may also have won a championship for the Royals. After playing four games in five nights, Cincinnati had eight straight days off, and that was all McMahon needed.
Back to two-a-day practice sessions went the Royals, just as in training camp, and from then on things started looking better and better. Oscar quickly regained top form, and Lucas not only was obviously fit but seemed as eager to play as he did in his sophomore year at Ohio State. The explanation was simple. For two years basketball games had been only one part of Jerry's busy life, but over the summer he had decided that one business at a time was plenty; the only thing on his mind now was 25 rebounds a game. McMahon also managed to persuade Odie Smith that he was the world's greatest shooter and, while that may be stretching a point, Smith began to shoot as if he were. The NBA coaches selected Smith to play in the All-Star Game, an honor that miffed many who were partial to the Knicks' Dick Barnett. But little Odie scored 24 points and drove off with a new Ford convertible awarded to the game's most valuable player. During practice the next day Smith got the usual ribbing from his teammates. He took it all with a big smile and continued to fire away with those long shots. "Look at him," said McMahon. "I've created a monster."
After the eight-day break the Celtics came to Cincinnati with fond memories of their first encounter of the season. But things were different. Lucas continually grabbed the ball off the defensive boards and got rid of it to Robertson or Smith in what many coaches concede is world-record time. Such moves are guaranteed to generate effective fast breaks, and when the Celtics did manage to slow the Royals a little Cincy used one of the set plays McMahon had instituted.
The Royals won eight in a row after the happy schedule break, and their only brush with disaster came in the second half of a game in Cincinnati when McMahon ripped out the seat of his pants, displaying a pair of colorful plaid shorts. Through the rest of the game he was forced to remain on the bench—even when he thought the referee blew a call. When the game ended, Trainer Charlie Swope hurriedly covered the situation with an overcoat and McMahon ran off to the locker room. "This game never ceases to excite me," he said.